The more things change … girls and moral panics

Have been reading Carol Dyhouse’s excellent Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women.

It begins with the white slave panic of the late 19th and early 20th century, concluding “girls travelling along in the 1900s were much more likely to be accosted by social workers determined to protect young innocents than pumps or predators. England’s ports and railway stations were by then swarming with voluntary social workers undertaking to safeguard young country girls about to enter they big city.” The panic had real consequences – “The social historian Dorothy Marshall, who grew up in the North of England before the war, recalled an unhappy year spent at a boarding school in Blackpool where she was subjected to lurid accounts of white slavery from other girls in the dormitory. Dorothy’s parents … instilled anxious warnings. Looking back, Dorothy considered that these early fears ‘provided one strand in my make-up, it is one I should be very happy to do without’.”(p 26)

I hadn’t previously heard about the Girls’ Friendly Society, which was obviously huge for decades, and vicious…. Dating from 1875, “stood for an uncomprising standard of purity. Loss of virginity meant loss of virtue and disqualified a girl from being or becoming a member. An early attempt (in 1878-9) to soften this rule, in order to allow work with girls who repented of any ‘lapse from grace’ met with opposition from both the founder, Mrs Townsend, and the bishops. The society’s aim was the prevent girls from ‘falling’. Upper-class lady ‘associates’ took it upon themselves to act in a semi-maternal capacity towards unmarried, working-class girls,…. astonishingly successful in the UK and even internationally, with strong links throughout the British Empire…. peak membership in 1913, with 39,926 associates and 197,493 members in England and Wales….a massive publishing endeavour… the aim was to combat the appeal of ‘shilling shockers and penny dreadful’ … offered uplifting stories of moral endeavour and self-sacrifice, often illustrated with images of female saints, and with floral motifs. White flowers, of course, carried a special symbolic charge. Snowdrops and lilies were emblems of feminine purity and heavily resorted to by Victorian sentimentalists. A separate group of organisations calling themselves Snowdrops or White Ribbon bands flourished alongside the GFS from around 1889 to 1912, particularly among factory girls in the North and the Midlands. … All this flowering-plant imagery became somewhat stretched at times: The Snowdrops featured an obituary column under the subtitled ‘Transplanted’. (p. 28-30) Reformers in the GFS “only succeeded in changing the rule as late as 1936 and even this was in the teeth of strong opposition, and many of the old guard resigned” (p. 34)

The model of Victorian girlhood, as espoused by the traditionalists, was set out by John Ruskin in his 1865 essay “On Queen’s Gardens”. Femininity “should be all about self-abnegation, purity and sweet ordering in the home. Girls were given copies of the text, bound prettily in violet suede or green calf on anniversaries or as school prizes.” (p30)

The classes was often obvious. The Reverend Carpenter, of the Social Purity Alliance, on working girls in London “Let anyone go, for instance, along Commercial Road in the evening and see the awful roughness and want of modest – the horrible loss of all that we think most tender and beautiful and pure in womanhood – among the rough girls that congregate in that road and push their way and pass their horrid jobs.” (p. 31)

Plus ca change…
“Paul Johnson, warning of ‘The Menace of Beatlism’ in the left-of-centre New Statesman, retailed the clich├ęs of class prejudice with a disturbing misogyny. Girl fans revealed a ‘bottomless chasm of vacuity’ he wrote, their faces “bloated with cheap confectionary and smeared with chain store make-up, the open, sagging mouths and glazed eyes, the hands mindlessly drumming in time to the music, the broken stiletto heels, the shoddy, stereotyped, ‘with-it’ clothes.” (p. 158)

“Growing girls have probably always been sensitive to their body weight and appearance. There is a haunting passage in Pearl Jephcott’s study of working-class girls, Girls Growing Up, which was published during the Second World War. …’Mary Smith’ was an intelligent and articulate young woman who had struggled against unpromising odds to train as a nurse…. Mary’s plucky and heart-warming story ended with a confession. “I never bother the opposite sex and very, very seldom they bother me, but my biggest tragedy is I am fat and wear W.X. clothes, I don’t like dancing because I think I am too fat. I don’t go swimming because I think I am too fat, I feel very impressed (sic) when in the company of males, I cannot fess as I like because the styles of dress I like do not suite (sic) fat people.” (p.216)

One comment

  • September 9, 2016 - 4:42 pm | Permalink

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